Picks and Pans Review: Old School

UPDATED 01/12/2004 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/12/2004 at 01:00 AM EST


by Tobias Wolff


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Tobias Wolff, the short-story writer and author of the beloved 1989 memoir This Boy's Life, has finally given us his first novel. This artful and moving work takes place at a posh New England boys' boarding school during the JFK era, when literary celebrities still possessed the glamorous aura of rock stars.

Like many of his privileged fellow students, the novel's appealing and morally complex narrator (he is never named) longs to be a writer. "Maybe it seemed to them, as it did to me," he writes, "that to be a writer was to escape the problems of blood and class." When three famous authors are invited to visit the school, he sees a chance to be initiated into, and embraced by, the intoxicating world of words. Each of the visitors is to choose a story or poem by one of the students, who will then be rewarded with a marvelous prize: a private chat with the author. After losing out to a friend for Robert Frost's approval and falling feverishly ill while preparing for the visit of Ayn Rand, he finds himself blocked by the idea of writing for his idol Ernest Hemingway. His hunger to meet Hemingway at any cost leads to a series of shattering lessons that have as much to do with life as with literature—revelations about honesty and deception, identity and loyalty, betrayal and forgiveness, and about the crucial difference between fiction and falsehood. Not a word is wasted in this spare, brilliant novel about the way that reading changes and forms our lives, and about how one learns to become a writer—and a conscious human being.

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